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Hurricane damage a major challenge

Storms leave tens of thousands homeless in Texas and Florida Keys
Citizen soldiers of the Puerto Rico National Guard patrol a flooded highway after Hurricane Maria struck the island.

Citizen soldiers of the Puerto Rico National Guard patrol a flooded highway after Hurricane Maria struck the island.

Storm-weary. That’s about the only way to describe Americans after two Category 4 hurricanes hit the U.S. coast for the first time since data collection began in 1914.

And storm-weary doesn’t begin to describe how people feel in Texas, the Florida Keys and Puerto Rico — to say nothing of the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Barbuda, Turks and Caicos and other islands that hurricanes Irma, Jose and Maria leveled, with some islands getting hit multiple times.

A month after Hurricane Harvey, which slammed into the Texas Gulf Coast on Aug. 27 and again Aug. 29 as a Category 4 storm, The Associated Press reported that more than 60,000 Texans were still displaced, living in shelters or hotel rooms at Federal Emergency Management Agency expense.

Irma tore through the Florida Keys on Sept. 10, making landfall between Cudjoe and Big Pine Key, leaving 10,000 people homeless. Keys officials invited tourists to return Oct. 1, even as residents of Cudjoe Key, Ramrod Key, the Torch Keys and Big Pine Key struggled to resume normalcy.

Three weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the island’s 3.4 million U.S. citizens have been plagued with power outages and a shortage of drinking water. More than 100 people remain unaccounted for, and 45 are dead. The estimated cost of Maria’s damage is $95 billion — almost an entire year’s economic output for the island, according to CNN. Hospitals are running short of medicine, and many businesses remain closed, The Washington Post reported. It is unclear how long rescue personnel will stay.

Islands that Irma hit

The people of Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands also still need help.

“We’re the biggest employer on the island, so it’s incumbent on us to take care of them,” John Glynn, sales and marketing vice president at the heavily damaged Bitter End Yacht Club and Resort, said at the Newport International Boat Show on Sept. 14. “The people are what make the BVI so special.”

The club has set up a fund to help get resources to the island, which Irma struck as a Category 5 storm. Glynn credited the “Puerto Rican Navy,” boaters with sportfishing convertibles who delivered supplies to the Virgins before Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico.

“The Puerto Rican boating crowd has been wonderfully helpful. They’ve sent at least four different flotillas of support boats, 70 or 80 miles, going to Tortola, Virgin Gorda — the outpouring …” Glynn trailed off. “They were willing to rush headlong into [Hurricane] Jose to help. … There’s a reason there’s a star on their state flag.”

Florida Keys recovery

More than a month after Irma slammed into the Florida Keys, residents were still digging out and BoatUS was continuing salvage efforts. Shawn Zelko, who works with TowBoatUS in Big Pine Key, lost his boat, his home and most of his belongings, but had rebuilt his horse barn with help from a church and a Key West contractor.

“Hopefully, eventually, some things will open up in Big Pine or around that area,” Zelko said of the housing shortage. “Until then, it’s going to be tough. The other option I have is I could put a camper at the farm.”

Zelko is one of many who think the Keys reopened too quickly. Key West was operational, but between Cudjoe Key and Marathon, things were devastated. Tourists have to drive through those hard-hit areas, and many treated the wreckage as a sideshow, Zelko said. The tourist presence also further squeezed housing shortages.

Daniel Hutchinson, whose father-in-law, Darryl Wallraven, lives in Marathon, has been raising funds and awareness about the devastation in Big Pine Key. Wallraven’s home is not habitable, and he had to leave his vacation rental because tourists were coming. Hutchinson and his wife have been traveling from their home in Deerfield Beach each weekend to help clear debris. They also set up a Don’t Forget Big Pine fund and a Facebook page because they’ve been troubled by the lack of national news about the area.

Amanda Crawford, of NBC affiliate WESH, has been tweeting from Big Pine Key since the storm. “Big Pine Key man lost home, living in trailer,” Crawford tweeted Oct. 9. “Others staying in hotels. But now, they’re being told rooms are needed for tourists.”

The Monroe County Commissioners said they expect to lose 15 to 20 percent of the population after Irma.

“‘Now is the most difficult part. The adrenaline has worn off, the trauma is setting in,’ - Monroe Co Commissioner,” Crawford tweeted Oct. 10.

“Just because it’s not in the [national] news doesn’t mean it’s over,” Hutchinson said. “One tragedy just overshadows another. You just keep getting forgotten.”

A U.S. Air and Marine Operations EMT comforts a man at a mountaintop home in Puerto Rico.

A U.S. Air and Marine Operations EMT comforts a man at a mountaintop home in Puerto Rico.

Harvey and people

Harvey’s aftermath was also lost in the slew of storms that dominated headlines for close to two months. Yamaha Pro Staff member Dwayne Eschete said the Texas Gulf Coast still needs volunteers willing to help clear debris.

“We fed people for 15 days. We figured in the 15 days we put out 9,500 meals — some people came back every day,” Eschete said in early October.

Those 15 days followed four days of conducting boat rescues in the Houston area. Eschete helped out in Rockport, Port Aransas and Aransas Pass — the path of Harvey’s eye.

“Everyone asked why I was going to south Texas because Houston was so messed up,” he said. “But in Houston the water’s gone, it’s receded, they’re going to clean their houses, take the Sheetrock and carpet out and rebuild. But the one thing they have is they can go around the corner or half a mile, or within a mile, and get groceries. Fast-food restaurants, gas stations, the drugstores are open.

“Over there by Port Aransas, Rockport and Aransas Pass, they didn’t have those luxuries of going a mile, or 10 miles, to go to the store,” he continued. “They lost everything. They lost their stores, gas stations, drugstores, banks, everything. Everybody got affected. I wanted to go where I made the biggest difference.”

Harvey and the marine industry

A Hurricane Harvey Sportfishing & Marine Industry Recovery Fund has been established to aid individuals, families and small businesses directly involved in the Texas offshore fishing and marine industry.

Kyle Holmes, a tournament sportfisherman and Texas A&M University student who conducted rescues during Harvey, says he has spoken to a number of fishing and charter guides who are “very concerned about the region’s fisheries because the amount of fresh water in the bay pushes all the redfish and trout farther out.

“All the pollutants — fuel and bacteria, and all the stuff coming through the bay — goes on and on,” Holmes added. “And running the bay is now more dangerous because of all the trees, logs and debris that just came down the river and are now deposited in the bay.”

Several boats were destroyed when Harvey hit Aug. 25. “Everywhere you went in Rockport, they were all scattered everywhere,” Holmes said.

The storm, blamed for at least 60 deaths, subsequently dumped feet of rain on the Houston area. It flooded much of the city as it hovered for days before finally trudging northeast and flooding additional towns and cities in Texas.

“We normally wade fish, but a lot of the flats have collected trees and debris and washing machines,” Holmes said. “It’s definitely going to be a curveball to learn everything and see where everything is. We launch the boats in the dark [during tournaments], so you better know where everything is. It’s going to definitely take a while.”

Despite the substantial damage, the storms’ overall impact on the marine industry won’t be huge, said Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

“There’s going to be a significant impact in the Keys,” Dammrich said. “I have no idea how long it’s going to take them to get back to normal. These are terrible things that happen, but they’re isolated and the impact on the industry nationally is going to be negligible. The impact on the industry locally is significant. It’s going to take them a while, no question. It might take them months just to get out. Some places were completely destroyed. So to rebuild those boats is going to take a while, no question.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue.



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